What do Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump have in common?
What do a small-town paratrooper from Venezuela and a billionaire real estate mogul from New York have in common?
What do a small-town paratrooper from Venezuela and a billionaire real estate mogul from New York have in common? Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump are both outsized personalities seeing themselves as the sole leaders capable of restoring their countries to greatness. They eschew political correctness and routinely speak in an informal, unscripted style, connecting directly with voters who have felt invisible. They are both polarizing populists and 17 years of Chavista government in Venezuela may provide a cautionary tale to the United States.
Political scientists use the term “populist” to refer to political discourse that emphasizes “us vs. them” in moral terms of good and evil. Most often it is the “evil” elites conspiring against the “good” people, a narrative Chávez emphasized in Venezuela and Bernie Sanders uses in blaming Wall Street. It can also pit citizens against foreigners, as seen in the resurgent xenophobic trends of Europe and the giant wall proposed by Trump to keep Mexicans out of the United States.
The consequences of polarizing populism can be pernicious. Political polarization often creates government gridlock as politicians refuse to negotiate and compromise. Societal polarization tends to make citizens less tolerant, less empathetic, and less willing to share neighborhoods and resources with people who think differently.
Populist politicians use polarizing rhetoric as an electoral strategy — stoking the fears and resentments of anxious voters to increase turnout in their favor. By labeling adversaries as enemies to be conquered or eliminated, populists may be perceived by overzealous supporters to be giving permission to engage in violence. They justify bypassing other branches of power by appealing to their popular mandates to rapidly and efficiently “fix the problems” and counter the elites threatening their country.
Both Chávez and Trump favor attention-grabbing divisive rhetoric and an apparent disregard for public institutions and laws. Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 as the outsider in the wake of an economic decline. A rising middle class was sliding backward and poverty rates rose from 25 percent to 65 percent between the 1970s and the 1990s. This severe social dislocation generated contempt for the traditional two-party political system that had alternated power since the 1960s.
Despite having led an abortive coup against the elected president six years earlier, Chávez campaigned on a platform of wresting control of Venezuelan democracy from a corrupt elite and returning it to the people. He promised constitutional change and a vaguely-defined revolution to restore the “birthright” of this oil-producing nation’s petro-revenues to the masses, without specific policy proposals to deal with the lowest oil prices in two decades and a huge national debt.
Trump burst on the US political scene as a well-known bombastic billionaire and celebrity at a moment similarly ripe for outsiders. Eight years after a devastating recession and a decades-long trend of deepening income inequality and social immobility, a significant sector of the population remained resentful and angry at their inability to benefit from the economic recovery. They were receptive to Trump’s assignation of blame for the loss of jobs — on the Chinese, the Mexicans, and immigrants in general. Just as Chávez found an easy scapegoat in the United States and its Venezuelan “lackeys” for the ills facing Venezuela, Trump blames the politicians, as he did in his campaign launch speech: “They will never make America great again. They don’t even have a chance. They are controlled fully, they are controlled fully by the lobbyists, by the donors and by the special interests.”
Chávez governed Venezuela for 15 years, until his death in 2013, utilizing these populist strategies. He pursued radical change through confrontation, concentrated power in his persona, eliminated rivals, and repressed dissent along the way. His legacy is a country facing paralyzing gridlock between a fractured governing party and a bickering opposition. Its oil-dependent economy is in shambles, and the system of checks and balances has eroded. The economy continues to slide downhill while the opposition strives to unseat the president. Hyperinflation has left many with little, and the nation’s record-breaking homicide rate goes unaddressed.
Trump dismisses national and international law when he contemplates waterboarding and other forms of torture. He disparages his opponents as “losers” and “stupid,” inviting his supporters to similarly eschew civility and respect for others. He discredits expertise in politics and evidence-based policymaking when he makes up facts and proclaims himself his own best advisor.
Political outsiders like Chávez and Trump rise to power when political insiders are perceived as failing to listen and give voice to their own constituents. Populists can help spur a much-needed shake-up of complacent parties, prone to perpetuating electoral rules such as campaign finance and gerrymandering to keep themselves in power. But when voters give such messianic leaders unchecked political power to ride roughshod over institutional checks and balances and undermine basic civility and respect for individual rights, they run the risk of ushering in a dangerous concentration of power subject to the whims of a single egocentric leader.